Minneapolis, MN — winter 2006
As the gallery rolled along, artists and volunteers would share with us stories about their past experiences at other galleries:
“Yeah, we never met the artists. We just sat and held gallery hours.”
“We’re allowed to go to board meetings? I thought board meetings are closed. We were never allowed to go to them, so I always just assumed they were confidential.”
“A ‘CV’? What’s that? Yeah, we never talked about resumes.”
“They never let me or any of the other girls touch the art. The two boys in the program did all of the hanging.”
One by one I heard stories. Artists and students would come into the gallery for an opening or an artist’s talk and share their experiences at school and other galleries and spaces outside of Altered Esthetics. They were all similarly disappointing, with a few common themes:
• A lack of practical learning opportunities and lack of training
• A lack of opportunity for creative exploration
• Gender bias in the art world starting as early as high school
What I couldn’t figure out was why. Liability? Business as usual? All I knew is that with more than twelve exhibitions a year, we had an opportunity to provide hands-on experience with both curation and installation. And there was no good reason why the women were not allowed to handle the artwork!
As a result of these demonstrated needs, we crafted Altered Esthetics’ Curatorial Internship Program. Styled as an apprenticeship, it placed interns in cohorts and paired them up for a series of exhibitions. They shadowed, then assisted, then led the curation. They got to meet and interact with the artists, and they learned how to handle and hang artwork. They made decisions on how exhibitions would be presented and promoted. And they left with the ability to curate and execute shows of their own, which many of them did. Former interns went on to curate additional exhibitions at coffee shops, museums, and galleries—and a few came back to guest curate later exhibits at Altered Esthetics as well.
The launch of the curatorial internship for the upcoming year was a win-win. The 2007 interns got hands-on experience, we got to work with groups of creative, bright, most-of-the-time-hardworking people. Contrary to the intern stereotype, they weren’t all young.
A year or two after we launched the Curatorial Internship Program we saw and addressed another need. The curatorial field as a whole was changing. Exhibition curators weren’t just expected to be well versed in art history, but grant writing and fundraising as well. And yet many of the art-history and liberal-arts majors we met were being dropped into the job environment without any practical experience in advancement and fundraising. To provide this experience, we crafted and launched the Gallery Director Internship. In this, we worked with each student to craft a project around their area of interest: from grant writing to gallery management.
We worked with the Minneapolis College of Art and Design and other institutions to connect these opportunities to students, some of them receiving school credit for their time. Many interns just did it for the creative experience and the chance to have a hands-on role in the execution of exhibitions.
Several years after launch we surveyed past interns and learned that all of them had gone on to curate other exhibitions, were working at arts nonprofits, continued in their own artistry, or had gone back to school to finish art degrees. They received hands-on, practical experience and guidance, and our art exhibitions were better and more exciting with their help and insight.
As it grew, the Curatorial Internship Program was a great exercise in the practice of collaboration. The first curatorial interns, like the gallery interns that would follow, formed their own special bond as a cohort. Patricia Hibbard Chavez, Pati, was an artist and community organizer from White Bear Lake and St. Paul. Tony Tudisco was a graphic designer and artist, and Rhett Roberts was . . . a hoot! Well—he was also a painter, but he was charismatic and hilarious to work with.
These first curatorial interns had their work cut out for them— not just because of our ambitious schedule, but also because they were among the first that had to share creative execution with me. Fortunately, they brought great ideas with them to the execution. Pati helped bring to life the first Día de Muertos art exhibition, which would become an annual tradition at the gallery. She brought a vision that made sure we were keeping true and sincere to the roots and cultural significance of an important holiday. In addition to curation, Tony brought a professional quality to the gallery’s brand and design, and Rhett helped curate the Art of Sacrifice exhibition. The more we opened the creative process to sharing and collaboration, the better the shows became.
Over the course of that first curatorial internship year, the program and the exhibitions both improved considerably. An added benefit was with more people on board, we had more connection points with artists: for communication, building relationships, and feedback. Having connection points beyond myself as the founder was a critically important part of our growth, one we would continue to nurture in the coming years.
This post is adapted from It’s Never Going To Work: A Tale of Art and Nonprofits in the Minneapolis Community with illustrations by Athena Currier. Post graphics by Jamie Schumacher. ©2019.
It’s Never Going To Work is a light-hearted, illustrated book that offers real-life insights on founding a community space and nonprofit. It provides tools, tips, resources, and camaraderie to community organizers and anybody attempting something new.